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Alexander Wurz - third team lucky? 15 Mar 2007

Alex Wurz (AUT) Williams Third Driver.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Japanese Grand Prix, Preparations, Suzuka, Japan, 5 October 2006 Alex Wurz German Formula Three Championship, Nurburgring, 22 August 1993. World © SUTTON Alex Wurz (AUT), Benetton B197, 3rd place with Jacques Villeneuve (CDN), Williams FW19, 1st place on the podium British Grand Prix, Silverstone, 13th July 1997. World © Sutton Alex Wurz (AUT) McLaren Mercedes MP4/20.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Bahrain Grand Prix, Practice, Bahrain International Circuit, Bahrain, 1 April 2005 Alex Wurz British Formula Three Championship, Silverstone, 15 August 1995. World © SUTTON

A cursory glance at the 2007 driver line-up and the younger Formula One fan may be forgiven for thinking Williams are fielding a rookie this season. In fact, Alexander Wurz has been a fixture of the sport for the past decade, having made his original Formula One debut with Benetton in the 1997 Canadian Grand Prix. He has been in full-time employment ever since - with McLaren from 2001 to 2005 and Williams since 2006 - becoming one of the most highly-regarded test drivers in the business. Now Frank Williams has agreed it’s time the Austrian went racing again - and many who remember his previous Grand Prix outings feel it’s a decision long overdue.

Wurz knew success from an early age - he was BMX world champion at the age of 12 and it was in this two-wheeled world that he picked up a rather unusual habit that would continue into his early Formula One days - that of wearing different coloured race boots, one red and one blue. Shortly afterwards he switched to karting and his natural talent behind the wheel was immediately apparent, progressing through Formula Ford to Formula Three and - in 1996 - becoming the youngest ever winner of the famed Le Mans 24-hour race, claiming victory in a Joest Porsche.

In 1997 he was called up by Benetton as a test driver, while still contesting the FIA International GT championship. Towards the end of the Formula One season, regular Benetton driver Gerhard Berger fell ill and Wurz was promoted into his seat for a three-race stint. His pace was impressive and he twice out-qualified experienced team mate Jean Alesi. He even found himself on the podium, taking third place to Alesi's second at the British Grand Prix. It was a fairytale start to Wurz’s Formula One career and fans and critics alike were quickly predicting great things for him.

In 1998 Wurz found himself promoted to a full race drive for Benetton, alongside another rising star, Giancarlo Fisichella. It was a fascinating season, and although Fisichella enjoyed slightly more success (out-qualifying his team mate 10 to six and scoring two second-placed finishes), Wurz's more consistent form, including five fourth-place finishes and a fifth, saw him beating the Italian’s final points tally to take eighth in the drivers' championship, with 17 points against 16.

Yet, with hindsight, 1998 proved to be the highlight of Wurz's race career to date. The following season his form slipped dramatically and he ended up finishing the championship in 13th place with just three points, compared to Fisichella's 13 points and ninth-place finish. In 2000 the Austrian's fortunes waned still further, when inconsistent form and a lack of pace saw Wurz score just two world championship points all year, compared to Fisichella’s 18. He was dropped at the end of the season.

With no race seat forthcoming for 2001, Wurz took up the option of a testing role at McLaren. Over the next four years he would become a vital component in the technical development of the Woking team’s cars, putting in over 70,000 kilometres of running and rebuilding his reputation in the process. Only once, though, was he allowed to prove his race prowess, standing in for the injured Juan Pablo Montoya at the 2005 San Marino Grand Prix. Anyone fearing Wurz might prove a little race rusty needn’t have worried. After qualifying seventh he came through the field to secure third place and a podium appearance on his competitive return.

That race proved what Wurz already knew - he still had the hunger. But with Ron Dennis having already signed up world champion Fernando Alonso to partner Kimi Raikkonen for 2006, he knew his chances of ever getting a permanent race seat at McLaren were slim at best. After weighing up the odds he jumped ship to become Williams’ test and reserve driver, a position that promptly translated into a 2007 race drive following Mark Webber’s departure for Red Bull.

Based on Williams’ disastrous 2006 showing, it may not seem the most attractive slot on the grid. However, few expect a repeat performance from Frank Williams’ squad this season and testing of the Toyota-powered FW29 has gone well, even if the team’s decision to skip the final Bahrain sessions has made direct comparisons with their rivals difficult. Whatever the outcome, the ever-enthusiastic Wurz can be relied upon to make the best of the situation. The odd-coloured race boots may be gone, but the will to win most certainly isn’t.